Netflix: the best $7.99 your parents will spend each month.
I love my unlimited access to The West Wing and Toddlers and Tiaras, but lately I’ve realized that for every Breaking Bad you peruse, there is a Troll 2 or Birdemic: Shock and Terror crouching in a shadowy alley trying to sell you counterfeit Rolexes.With such an Everest of content to sift through, it can be intimidating to sort the good from the questionably good from the unquestionably bad, I'm well aware.
That’s why Treasures of Netflix is here - I want to give you entry points into genres and obscure films you may not otherwise try.I will start this series with a documentary, not because I’m a die-hard purist who believes fictional filmmaking are inherently inferior arts, but rather because I found a really, really good one: Hoop Dreams.
Complete with blaring hip-hop, neon bomber jackets, and basketball shorts that stop far above the knee, the opening sequence screams nineties. It will seem cheesy at first. You will ask yourself “why did I let someone convince me that watching some Chicago kids make free-throws at playgrounds was a good idea?”
But then you’ll realize, it is because those Chicago kids are William Gates and Arthur Agee. Hailing from the rough inner city, the guys are wise-cracking, talented 8th graders who dream of making it to the NBA. Spotted by an elite private school recruiter, the two are lifted into a brave new world – suburbia – supposedly the harbinger of fame, success, and safety.
With the peppy hip-hop lead-in and editing that never shows Arthur or William missing a shot, Hoop Dreams begins with a feel-good Disney Channel basketball movie vibe –like Luck of the Irish or Full-Court Miracle but without the magical leprechauns and kippahs.
This assumption is abruptly upended within the first twenty minutes. After a year in private school, Arthur’s scholarship lapses. His family’s inability to pay the outstanding tuition forces him to transfer away without a single credit on his transcript. And while William still fulfills the bill of high-achieving underdog, making Varsity as a freshman, his life is still rendered in all shades of reality. Though he succeeds on the court, perilously low grades and an injury imperil his chances of attending a Division 1 school, much less making the NBA.
The movie really hits its stride when the paths of William and Arthur diverge. Whether Arthur is shooting in a cramped building with broken heating or William is playing to sold-out gymnasiums, their passion for the game is palpable. Daily, both of the boys spend hours in and out of practice shooting baskets. Every year, both of their teams strive to make it “down State,” their term for being invited to the Championship Tournament. Each faces unique struggles at home: an absent father, an unexpected child, gang violence – but their struggle to succeed despite these situations unites them. To them, basketball is a ticket into elite high schools, admission to college, and a means of providing for their family should they make it to the big-time.
This discussion of the "American Dream" is by no means complete, but the questions it raises still ring with immediacy and poignancy twenty years later.
Are “hoop dreams” and impractical goals like them valid pursuits that should be facilitated by political systems? Are they functionally different from other improbable dreams say, to become a CEO or Senator? Should we discourage these or any types of idealism? If so, how? And what practical alternatives can or should be promoted?
The movie remains silent on these questions, leaving them instead for the viewer to grapple with. Two decades later, society still seems to lack the answers.
The Bottom Line
Whatever your interests: basketball, public policy, sociology, statistics, beautiful cinematography, human beings – Hoop Dreams is a coming-of-age for the ages. A heartbreaking and ruggedly optimistic look at the world we live in. A world where any boy with “hoop dreams” can take his shot, but some shoot from the free-throw line and others from the nosebleeds in the bleachers.
P.S. Hoop Dreams is also available for free on Youtube and Hulu.